Of black ink and other student blues: Telecounsellors tackle exam anxiety

- MUMBAI: At 6.15 pm on June 13, 2012, Aurangabad's Sandeep Sisode told a white lie. "I am calling from the board," he said to a 17 year-old stranger who had received his call through the window of his bedroom. "Due to a technical error, your seat number was misprinted and your certificate got interchanged with another boy's," Sisode told the teenager who had locked himself up in his bedroom and had been fiddling with a rope, threatening to hang from the ceiling fan between loud sobs after discovering he had failed in three subjects in HSC. Nervous neighbours had banged on his door, his little sister was weeping and, in a fit of panic, his desperate mother had reached out to Sisode, whose number was one among ten nameless mobile numbers released by the Maharashtra State Board to help resolve the many mental torments of exams. A clinical psychologist, Sisode spun a yarn that would compel the boy to take the call. His timely lie relieved the boy and possibly saved a life.

Such small yet significant victories, however, find no place in the staid, numerical reports filed by these ten faceless counsellors across Maharashtra, who receive Rs 1500 each from the State Board to tackle calls from anxious HSC and SSC students during exam season. All that these telecounsellors-Marathi-speaking psychologists and professors from Pune, Aurangabad, Sangli and Bhusaval who deal with a variety of urban and rural enquiries-tend to produce in their yearly report, is a list of incoming phone numbers and the total number of calls.But even those, if you scratch the surface, can be telling.

For one, the number of calls jumped from 1232 in 2012 to 6097 last year. This season, too, the counsellors at the personality development academy in Pune's Sadashiv Peth--that has tied up with the Pune-based State Board since 2009 to provide this counselling service-say they have already got over 4000 calls between just the five of them. Though many of those calls were for "technical" queries such as "What is the passing mark for Physics?" as opposed to psychological concerns, the trend is uplifting, say counsellors. "It means awareness has risen," says Pune-based Pavan Gaikwad, coordinator of the telecounselling project, who alerted the parents of a Hadapsar-based girl who had called him at 2.30 am two years ago after her sci ence paper saying she was contemplating suicide.

The phone may ring any time and even though they are only obligated to receive calls between 8 am to 8pm, many go beyond the brief. "It may be someone in need," Aparna Ashtaputre, an Aurangabad-based psychology professor tells her 13-year-old son when he asks her why she was taking calls from unknown numbers at night. Recently, Ashtaputre got a call from an SSC student in Pune who said he could not appear for two board papers due to pneumonia."Will I fail or be considered absent?" he asked.

For the lot accustomed to deflecting pre-exam queries like, "Can you please point out the most likely question?" and "Will I reach the centre on time?", this is relatively new ground. "Earlier," says Ashtaputre, who has been doing the job for five years, "most of the calls would be fearrelated. But now, post-exam stress has risen." She blames it on a familiar suspect--"peer pressure". That explains the girl who called Pune-based Mahesh Patil saying, "I don't know if I've signed my hall ticket" and the cobbler's son from Gangapur in Aurangabad who recently called Sisode to ask about possible options he could explore if he failed. In fact, this year was also the first time that Pune's Sayli Gaikwad got calls from Vidarbha, Bhandara and Latur from students complaining about instances of mass copy ing making their efforts redundant.

Like in an ATM transaction, the call ers--who remain anon ymous--expect instant, specific solutions to even vague questions like: "I don't feel good. What to do?" Inevitably, over time, their service has helped the psychol ogists arrive at certain inferences: Physics is the name of a looming monster that appears small only in hindsight, exam fever is a real thing, boys are more likely to call than girls and be it Mumbai or Beed. Recently, a mother in Jalna called Punebased counsellor Rupali Deshmukh before her son's English paper to complain that he was studying the wrong book.

To be sure, not every parent may be satisfied with the service-some are known to ask counsellors to convince their "stricter" spouses while some others try to stuff their own words down the counsellor's mouth and pass the phone onto their kids--but a majority call back to thank them. A few grateful parents and even students ask if they can meet in person. In severe cases, relationships form. For instance, the Aurangabad-based boy, whom Sisode had spoken to in 2012, now works as a manager in a tyre manufacturing firm and is still in touch with him.<

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